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On this day, 125 years ago, Oscar Wilde was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ and slapped with the ‘maximum sentence allowed’

Patrick Kelleher May 25, 2020
Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde. (Universal History Archive/Getty)

It is 125 years today since Oscar Wilde was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years hard labour for the simple crime of being gay.

Wilde’s conviction in 1895 came as something of a shock in London literary circles. The Irish writer had taken the city by storm with plays like Salomé and The Importance of Being Earnest. He had, for several years before his death, reigned supreme as a respected, if somewhat eccentric, figure.

But Wilde had a secret. He was a gay man living in a world that was not just unaccepting of his identity, but also deeply hostile to it.

He married the Irish author Constance Lloyd and had two children with her, and to the outsider, his life was exactly as it was supposed to be.

But to those who knew him closely, Wilde was an entirely different figure. Throughout his life, he had a number of male lovers, including the journalist and critic Robert Ross and, most notably, Lord Alfred Douglas.

Throughout the 1880s, Wilde built a career as a journalist, poet and critic, but by the beginning of the 1890s, he was focused on his creative work. In 1890, an early version of his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in a magazine – and it was immediately criticised for its clear allusions to homosexuality.

When the novel was published in 1891, the more obviously homoerotic sections were cut – but Wilde had already developed a reputation as an outrageous figure whose life was not in line with what was expected of men in the late Victorian period.

Oscar Wilde met his lover Lord Alfred Douglas in 1891, the relationship which would lead to his downfall.

That same year, Wilde was introduced to Lord Alfred Douglas. The two quickly became close, and within two years, they were engaged in a full-blown affair. Despite the fact that homosexuality was illegal in Britain, the pair made little effort to keep their relationship a secret.

It wasn’t long before Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensbury, came to suspect that his son was having an affair with the wildly flamboyant writer.

In June 1894, the Marquess of Queensbury visited Wilde’s home and told him: “I do not say that you are it, but you look it, and pose at it, which is just as bad. And if I catch you and my son again in any public restaurant I will thrash you”, according to Richard Ellmann’s 1988 biography of the writer.

Wilde replied: “I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight.”

That same year, Wilde wrote what is often considered to be his masterpiece: The Importance of Being Earnest. It was first performed in 1895 at St James’ Theatre in London and instantly became a hit. Wilde was at the top of his game – but everything was about to fall apart.

In February of that year, the Marquess of Queensbury left a calling card at Wilde’s club, the Albermarle, which read: “For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite”.

Against the advice of his friends and confidants, Wilde initiated legal proceedings against Queensbury for criminal libel. Queensbury was arrested and, under the 1843 Libel Act, could only avoid conviction by proving that his allegations against Wilde were true and that there was a benefit to publicising them.

Queensbury hired private detectives who quickly uncovered evidence of Wilde’s dealings with male sex workers – and so began Wilde’s downfall.

I do not say that you are it, but you look it, and pose at it, which is just as bad.

In court, evidence was presented of Wilde’s sexual liaisons, and some sex workers were coerced into taking the stand and testifying against him.

When confronted with a wealth of evidence, Wilde dropped his legal proceedings against Queensbury. The father of his lover was subsequently declared not guilty by the court because, it was ruled, his accusation that Wilde was a homosexual was factual.

But the nightmare didn’t end there. A warrant was issued for Wilde’s arrest after the trial proved his homosexuality. On April 6, he was arrested for gross indecency and his trial began within a matter of weeks.

Wilde pleaded not guilty to the charges, and the jury was ultimately unable to reach a verdict. He was released on bail, and his final trial was preceded over by Mr Justice Wills.

On May 25, 1895, Wilde was convicted of gross indecency and was sentenced to two years hard labour, the maximum sentence allowable for his crime.

Speaking in the courtroom, Wills said the maximum sentence was “totally inadequate for a case such as this” and insisted that it was “the worst case” he had ever tried.

Wilde fled to France after his release from prison, but his health never recovered.

Over the following two years, Wilde was imprisoned in three separate prisons, most notably Reading Gaol, which inspired The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

While imprisoned at Pentonville Prison, Wilde was forced to walk hours every day on a treadmill and spent the rest of his days picking oakum. He was later transferred to Wandsworth Prison and it was there that his health began to deteriorate.

One day, he collapsed from hunger and exhaustion, rupturing an eardrum in the process. It is thought that this accident ultimately contributed to his untimely death.

Wilde was released from prison in 1897 and travelled to France where he saw out his remaining years.

In 1900, he contracted meningitis and died in exile at the age of 46. He was buried in Paris.

In 2017, well over a century after his conviction, Wilde was one of an estimated 50,000 men who was pardoned by the British government for the “crime” of gross indecency.

Today, he is remembered as one of the greatest writers of the Victorian period. While his life ended in tragic circumstances, his plays, poems and novel have endured the test of time and are still widely loved today.

 

 

 

 

 

More: Constance Lloyd, gross indecency, Lord Alfred Douglas, Marquess of Queensbury, Oscar Wilde, Robert Ross, sodomy

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